9 - 11 February 2001
by Dennis Rogers
This report updates the relevant sections in the still very good Site Guides: Costa Rica and Panama (available from Amazon.com), with some comments on Coiba Island. Peter Kaestner and I visited the area February 9-11, 2001.
Western Panama has five endemics, with the expansion of Veraguan Mango into Costa Rica. Two are readily found in eastern Chiriquí province, while the other two are mainly restricted to Coiba Island. The Azuero Parakeet is only found in the isolated mountains of that peninsula and we did not attempt to look for it.
We visited Cerro Colorado on Feb. 10, 2001. This site is now freely accessible with none of the permits etc. mentioned in the bird-finding section of the Ridgely field guide. The unfortunate reason is the closing of the copper mine in the area; the road is now not maintained and is deteriorating fast. Even in the dry season it was difficult in spots with 4WD, and would be quite impossible without. The pick-up trucks that serve as public transport to the area from San Félix do reach the relevant habitat, and shortly will be the recommended option unless you are an experienced off-road driver and don’t mind abusing your vehicle. Make sure they are going beyond Hato Chami, as the birds are a minimum of 5 km beyond the fork there, with the better habitat 8-10 km along.
On three visits to the area (March 95, April 98, February 01), I’ve had no problems locating the endemic Yellow-green Finch and Glow-throated Hummingbird. Adult males of the hummingbird are scarce. Generally look for the finch as soon as there is habitat (about 3800 ft.), and for flower banks with hummingbirds. Other, larger, hummingbirds including Green Violetear, Violet Sabrewing, and Magnificent Hummer are present, but don’t seem to displace the Selasphorus. White-tailed Emerald, a CR-Chiriquí endemic not present at many sites in Costa Rica, was seen at a nice bank of flowers about 8 km above Hato Chami a couple of weeks before our visit.
Coiba Island was until recently a penal colony with no public access, but is now a national park and open to the public on a limited basis. Arrangements must be made in advance with the parks service (ANAM) in Santiago, 998-4271 with Viovelda (probably Spanish only) or fax 998-4392. Cost for the entrance is $10 p/p, with an additional $10 to stay overnight. Bring your own food. Access is by boat and expensive: we used José Rodriguez (958-7020, firstname.lastname@example.org). He has a fast twin motor boat usually dedicated to sport fishing, which took a little over two hours to get to the island on calm seas. It got rough on the way back and took longer. Cost was $500 for two days/one night, with no extra running around the island. As noted below, that’s something to negotiate, and you could probably get the trip to the other station for the same price. He prefers to leave with the high tide from Puerto Mudis near Santiago, which presents some problems on the island. The boat trip itself produced just a few Laughing Gulls and Royal Terns. In Santiago (one of Panama’s nicer towns), we stayed in the Hotel Plaza Gran David which was OK at $32.
Once on the island, it’s apparent that the only habitat within walking distance is some nice forest on the hill behind the park station, about a km away. You have to cross a tidal flat to reach it, however, which fills rapidly as the tide rises. So if you’ve left on the am tide, low tide will be in the middle of the day and access will be when it’s hot. Birding was interesting anyway, with House Wrens in the forest and other examples of competitive release. We found the Brown-backed Dove readily, but couldn’t find the Coiba Spinetail.
According to the park rangers, the spinetail is only found behind another station which is a 45 min boat ride, then an hour’s walk to the forest. It seems unlikely the bird is so restricted, but we decided to use the time elsewhere. Also you need to bring your own gas for the park staff to take you there—not the same mix as the big boat uses. Ask before departure.
When the Veraguan Mango was uncooperative (I’d not had to actually look for it before), we found it in a low creek bottom by the David airport. There were no flowering trees at that time of year. The Hotel Castilla seems the best in David, at $33 double. The Hotel Fiesta on the highway is much inferior for the same money.